Today, however, I was able to offer the Holy Sacrifice in the trenches, my chapel being a dug-out capable of holding ten or a dozen comfortably, but as my congregation numbered forty-six the vacant space was small. How they all managed to squeeze in I cannot say. There was no question of kneeling down, the men simply stood, silently and reverently round the little improvised altar of ammunition boxes; glad as one of them quaintly expressed it ‘glad to have a say in it.’ Surely Our Lord must have been glad also, for every one of the forty-six received Holy Communion and went back to their posts happy at heart and strengthened to face the hardships of these days and nights of cold.
The same afternoon, as I was coming back from my round of the Front Line trench I was caught in a rather heavy ‘strafe’ of the Germans. The point they were shelling was some little distance further on, but quite close to my way home and as splinters were flying about rather abundantly I thought it well to get under cover.
Accordingly, I crawled into a hole in which there were already six men and judging by the look on their faces no one could have been more welcome. ‘Come in Father’, one of them cried, ‘we’re safe now, anyhow.’
Poor fellows, they have such simple, strong faith and reverence for the priest that they would not mind, I think, if all the shells in Prussialand came tumbling into the trench; ‘Isn’t the priest of God with us, what more do you want?’
Kneeling there I asked her what God wanted from me, when I heard an interior voice clearly repeating, “Love Him, love Him.” The following day she seemed to rebuke me, when leaving the cemetery, for the careless way I performed most of my spiritual duties, and to say that God was displeased with this and wanted great fervour and perfection in them.
COMMENT: Today’s quote recounts Fr Doyle’s experience of visiting the grave of Ellen Organ, otherwise known as Little Nellie of Holy God. Little Nellie died on this day in 1908 in County Cork. Fr Doyle visited her grave in February 1911. We don’t know the exact date, but perhaps it was even 110 years ago on this day, her anniversary.
Little Nellie was only four and a half years old when she died. She was sent to live with the Good Shepherd sisters when her own mother died. She was diagnosed with TB and fell gravely ill. She was known even at that young age for her intense love of “Holy God”. She had a great longing to receive the Eucharist, and received extraordinary permission to do so at the age of four and a quarter. She seems to have reached the age of reason very quickly, and experienced several mystical graces. Her thanksgivings after Communion lasted until the late afternoon, and the smell of her rotting jaws and gums allegedly ceased after she had received her First Communion. She was unafraid of death, looking forward to being united with Jesus in Heaven. She died on this day in 1908.
Her fame soon spread, and her body was found to be incorrupt when examined 18 months after death. St Pius X was greatly moved by her story, and she helped inspire him to reduce the age of First Holy Communion from 12 to 7 years of age. In fact, St Pius was so moved that he asked for a relic of Little Nellie. How remarkable and humble – the great Pontiff requesting the relic of an unknown 4 year old girl!!
Fr Doyle obviously felt a particular affinity with Little Nellie. Did he have a mystical experience when he visited the grave? Did Little Nellie really chide him for his lack of fervour and perfection? We shall never know; such matters are hard to discern, and impossible 100 years removed from the event.
Little Nellie’s story is charming and edifying. Her example helped change Church practice on the age of First Holy Communion. The great St Pius X recognised her sanctity. Books are still published about her and significant interest in her life remains. Given the prevailing situation for too many Irish children of First Communion age – for many it is a day out when they receive lots of cash – her example is sorely needed, and her cause should be opened and promoted. Many children have already been raised to the altars and many more are on their way. One thinks immediately of Nennolina from Rome who died at six and a half in the 1930’s and whose story is similar to that of Little Nellie. She has already been declared Venerable, and an alleged miracle is apparently being investigated.
Pope Benedict tells us in his Letter to the Irish Church to remember the rock from which we have been hewn. We need contemporary Irish saints!!! This is not a pious, niche interest. Jesus Himself used everyday examples that were familiar to His listeners to illustrate His teachings. Missionaries in far away lands do the same today, utilising aspects of local culture to teach people about Christianity. Ireland is now mission territory once again, and we need to use our very own examples of holiness to reintroduce people to the Truth, Goodness and Beauty of Christianity. We have many worthy candidates, including, but not limited to, Fr Doyle and Little Nellie. Let us continue to pray for the day when we will see more Irish candidates recognised and held up as worthy models for the new evangelisation. But let us also work for this end, by writing and speaking about them and respectfully encouraging the relevant ecclesiastical authorities to open and pursue their causes.